Study Shows How Actors Make Memorizing Lines Look Easy: Themes, Motivation and Blocking

You’ve heard all the jokes about acting — like how it’s just another word for being a waiter or waitress — but it seems like the one thing people just happen to ignore when they’re making fun of actors is memorization.  After all, most of us have so much trouble remembering phone numbers that we are endlessly thankful for cell phones saving contacts. 

But that’s nothing for an actor — imagine having to memorize all of the words to portray Hamlet, who has 1569 spoken lines? 

For most people it would seem impossible, but we actors have been doing it for hundreds of years.  On top of that, actors have the added pressure of reciting the lines in front of audiences that expect perfection.  Though common to actors, this nonetheless phenomenal display of the memory’s capabilities has been studied by Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois, for over twenty years.  She spoke about her discoveries with Time Magazine.

Noice explains that actors don’t memorize a play like one would directly memorize facts for an upcoming biology test.  Actors look for themes in the dialogue to help them find their characters’ motivation, as Noice points out, “Almost every line of the script is mined for clues as to the characters, situations, or relationships.”  When studying the way actors learn their lines, Noice discovered it was a much deeper mental process, explaining, “At no time did the actors attempt to memorize the words directly, but rather tried to discern why the character would use those particular words to express that particular thought.”

Certainly rehearsals help memorization, but not just in the obvious way of repeating lines over and over again.  Actors also connect lines with specific movements.  Noice reveals, “Cast members’ movements are carefully blocked out during rehearsal, and so their lines are always matched to the same physical motions, forming a kind of bodily mneumonic device.” 
 
In fact, Noice has found that when an actor is no longer starring in a role on a regular basis he or she has a much easier time recalling lines that were connected to movements on stage than lines that were not (which might explain why one of Hamlet’s most famous and familiar lines — “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” — prominently features a prop). 
 
Another factor that helps memorization is the emotion that actors attach to the lines.  It’s much more difficult to memorize when you repeat the material in a bored, disinterested manner (as hundreds of years of schoolchildren can tell you).  Associating the lines with strong feelings gives those lines more significance and helps an actor recall his or her lines when those emotions are experienced again. 
 
Luckily all three techniques have been used by actors for years to help them memorize their lines.  Perhaps it’s about time for the rest of us to finally give these methods a shot — I’ll do anything to help me not forget my mother’s birthday!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Latest Videos

http://www.dailyactor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/director-david-gordon-greene-nar.jpg
Director David Gordon Green Narrates a Scene From ‘Joe’
Director David Gordon Green narrates a sequence from his new film, Joe, featuring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. In the video, he mentions his reasons why he likes to hire non-traditional actors. He likes people who have real skill-sets and not actors who have the skills on their resume. He also talked about this in […]
http://www.dailyactor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/david-gordon-green-joe.jpg
Director David Gordon Green: “I find actors in unusual places”
I keep missing screenings of director David Gordon Greene‘s new film, Joe. I hear it’s really good so I’m looking forward to catching it at some point. Joe stars Nicholas Cage as ex-con Joe Ransom, who isn’t the greatest of role models until he meets a 15-year-old boy (Mud‘s Tye Sheridan). In this featurette, Green […]
http://www.dailyactor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/judy-greer-i-dont-know-why-you-know-me-from.jpg
Please Don’t Say These Things To Judy Greer (video)
Judy Greer - who we love here at Daily Actor – has a new book called, I Don’t Know What You Know Me From (Confessions of a Co-Star), a series of essays about her life as an actress, friend and someone who everyone thinks they might know. Here’s a blurb about the book: “Want to […]
http://www.dailyactor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Captain-America-SamuelNick-Fury.jpg
How Samuel L. Jackson Learns His Lines for the Marvel Movies (video)
Samuel L. Jackson stopped by Good Morning America earlier this week to talk about Captain America: The Winter Soldier – which is terrific, by the way – and he told Robin Roberts that for the first Cap film, he had trouble learning his lines. “I sat at home and I did all my studying, and […]
http://www.dailyactor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/andy-karl-margot-seibert-rocky.jpg
Andy Karl and Margo Seibert Talk ‘Rocky: The Musical’ on ‘Today’
Andy Karl and Margo Seibert, the stars of Rocky: The Musical, talked to Today‘s Matt Lauer about the new Broadway musical. Karl talks about the final fight and taking on the iconic role. This is Seibert’s Broadway debut and she’s asked about her callbacks (9 in all!) and more. Check it out!